Release Date: June 6, 2014Platform: PCDeveloper: Stage 2 StudiosPublisher: Stage 2 StudiosGenre: Puzzle-platformer
Lifeless Planet has been a labor of love over the past several years for Dave Board, the designer and programmer of the mostly one-man independent game company, Stage 2 Studios. On the game’s official website, Board tells us that the third-person adventure is a total expression of his own passion for creating, and the “culmination of years of learning, experimentation and ambition.” Playing through the secluded and enthralling journey, you can see that passion emerge in spades. As far as indie gaming is concerned, Lifeless Planet is one big ol’ jetpack-infused leap forward for mankind.
The story of Lifeless Planet is hypnotic and spellbinding just on its premise alone: you play as a nameless astronaut, who volunteers for a one-way mission to a distant planet that has shown signs of great life. The planet is so far away that it takes fifteen Earth years for the astronaut to get there, and that’s even when travelling twice the speed of light. But when the astronaut finally lands and awakes from his self-induced cryogenic sleep, the rest of his crew is gone, and the planet seems barren and devoid of the promised life that Earth’s sensors had picked up. To say anything more would be to take away from the magic that begins to unfold as the astronaut pieces together exactly what happened on this planet.
Both the story and the atmosphere have that same sense of mystery and wonder that you’d find in a Team Ico game, and I found myself unequivocally captivated from beginning to majestic end. The presentation of narrative is especially striking, as you’ll be treated to the occasional visual hallucination or recorded voice overlay that slowly reveals your astronaut’s past back on Earth, and his reasons for embarking on this voyage in the first place. It’s an even more impressive feat, considering that the graphics in Lifeless Planet are fairly basic at best. But it’s exactly through this minimalist and poignant design that developer Dave Board is able to build up this rich and fascinating world, and he succeeds in making the player run through the same gamut of emotions and uncertainties as their astronaut does.
At its lonely, distant core, Lifeless Planet is a third-person open world platformer, pure and simple. You’ll guide your astronaut up and over looming rocks and foreign structures with the help of your failing jetpack, which offers a quick spurt of air and serves as a kind of double jump. At several intervals throughout your journey, you’ll also unlock an extender for your jetpack, which enables an additional handful of spurts during each jump, effectively letting you cross massive chasms in a single bound. It really opens up these sections in a big way, and keeps the action at a brisk pace as you fly across massive craters, rocky canyons, and fiery infernos.
There is also a light puzzle element interspersed throughout the game as well, although these aren’t quite as enjoyable or intuitive as the actual platforming segments themselves. Puzzles range from moving barrels or boulders so you can jump on them to reach higher areas; placing dynamite to clear a pathway; and using a robotic arm to press a button sequence or insert an energy source into an engine core. The latter is probably the weakest of Lifeless Planet’s puzzle components, as the arm’s cumbersome controls often slow down the otherwise brisk pacing of the game.
Lifeless Planet is a wondrously sized game that spans 20 sprawling platforming levels, and each one is more breathtaking than the last. From dusty and deserted settlements, to abandoned towers and foreign structures, to an eerie forest filled with lifeless trees, the sights and sounds of the planet are mesmerizing. Simply progressing through the game and reaching these new areas is unbelievably rewarding: I probably had just as much fun taking screenshots of my surroundings as I did actually playing the game, and having to narrow them down to the few that you see in this article was an excruciating process. My only quibble in this regard (and I promise it’s a small one) is that a few of the night levels are so dark that it makes it difficult to see where you are supposed to be going in the fairly linear game, even when I turned on the option to make these darker sections brighter.
But as a whole, Lifeless Planet is easily one of the most entrancing games I’ve played in a very long time. The constant need to press forward and explore is complemented perfectly by the simple and rewarding platforming gameplay. The story is surprising deep and emotional, and extremely intriguing in the minimalist way it gets told the further you traverse across this quiet and distant world. Lifeless Planet is a grand achievement in video game design, and a shining example of indie gaming here on Earth, or any other planet in the universe, for that matter.